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Photo Printer Fundamentals

How it's different than an inkjet and laser, and why you might need one

A bear in a tutu would never be mistaken for a ballet dancer. And while some people confuse the two, photo printers and inkjet printers are not the same. Each has distinctive capabilities and is designed for particular uses. The following sections will help you discover the features that make photo printers unique and essential.

Photo, inkjet, or laser printer?

The BASIC decision breaks down this way:

  • Photo printers are designed to print true, photo–quality pictures from a digital camera, as well the occasional black–and–white text document.


  • Inkjet printers are designed to print black–and–white text, color graphics, and the occasional (one or two per month) digital image.


  • Laser printers are best suited to printing a significant volume (for instance, 60 pages or more a month) of black–and–white text. Graphic designers, and others who need to print a large number of color graphics, will save money and time by buying a color laser printer. (Color lasers are faster and, since their toner lasts longer, produce color prints at a cheaper per–page cost than inkjets.)

The printing and color difference

Perhaps the reason consumers often confused photo and inkjet printers is because they both apply ink in the same way. While laser printers use heat to fuse powdered toner onto paper, photo and inkjets both spray tiny droplets of ink. That's where the similarity ends.

Printing
Photo printers apply smaller, finer dots of ink than do inkjet printers. (The size of ink dots is measured in picoliters. The smaller the picoleter, the finer the ink dots.) Since the ink droplets are smaller, images produced on a photo printer look sharper, less grainy, and more lifelike.

Color
Photo printers use six, sometimes seven, different colors of ink (as opposed to the three inks typically used by inkjets). In final prints, this leads to a wider variation of color representation, smoother color blending, and richer gradients. What's more, photo printer inks are specially treated to be age– and light–resistant.

When choosing a photo printer, also pay attention to the DPI, or dots per inch. The higher the DPI, the more color dots, and the richer the color resolution of the final image.

Borderless prints that look like real photographs

To print digital images that don't have white borders around them, you need to use a photo printer. With a photo printer, you can print the size of photo you want (ranging from 4"x6", 5"x7", letter and legal–sized, to 13"x19") — provided you buy photographic paper of that size. Inkjet printers give you the option of printing in different sizes, but they do not print in 5"7" or 4"x6" true photo sizes.

Why using photo paper is a must

Photo prints are only as good as the paper on which they're printed. If you use regular inkjet printing or multipurpose paper, your photo prints will look grainy and weak — no matter how excellent your photo printer. Photo printing paper (whether glossy or matte) better absorbs ink droplets and displays truer colors. (Read more about the advantages of photo paper.)

Printing from camera memory and previewing images

Higher–end photo printers have a few special features that some users consider indispensable. First, some photo printers can print directly from a camera's memory card. All you have to do is insert the memory card in a designated slot in the printer. This is especially useful if you don't own a computer — or if you just want the convenience of bypassing it.

Some photo printers also have a small LCD preview screen that shows you what the image will look like before you print. You can either choose not to print the image or use front–panel buttons (including crop, rotate, adjust brightness) to edit the photo right on the preview screen.

Wide-format photo printers

If you want to print poster–sized images up to 13"x19", you'll need a wide–format photo printer. If you're not sure a photo printer is wide–format, look at its paper handling specification. It should say 13"x19".


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